There was a disturbing story in the Baltimore Sun last week about a woman who lost her job because a government background check labeled her "unsuitable" for a low-level security clearance. The clearance was required for a contract her employer, Corporate Mailing Services, won with the US Social Security Administration (SSA).
Problem was the background check was wrong. Seems there was an error in the FBI's National Crime Information Center's (NCIC) database that the SSA used to conduct the woman's the background check.
After the woman was fired, the SSA sent a letter to her employer saying that she was in fact "suitable", and sent another a few weeks later saying that she was approved for the clearance.
However, Corporate Mailing Services refused to rehire the woman, saying first that it was reorganizing her department, and then later that she had work performance problems, something the woman strongly denies.
The woman, who is 58 and has been out of work since July when she was terminated, can't find a new job, has bills piling up, and has little legal recourse as it turns out. Her employer has a right to terminate her and not rehire her, and the neither the SSA or the FBI says it can be held liable or responsible since the error was corrected.
In fact, the story notes that the FBI can't explain why the error happened in the first place. The FBI also says it doesn't "maintain or track error rates."
I would be curious to see whether the NCIC operation has won any quality awards.
The SSA admits that "it is a horrible situation" for the woman, but that it can't do anything to make the employer rehire the woman.
A congressman, Representative Roscoe G. Bartlett, the Sun reports, has tried to help the woman without much luck, and is now considering legislation "to address future similar situations where inaccurate government criminal background checks are the cause of action for loss of jobs for government work."
It couldn't come soon enough, given that NCIC as well as other government databases have known data quality problems. At the very least, NCIC should be forced to maintain and track its error rates.
I think there should also be redress in any case where incorrect government information causes material harm to a person, plain and simple.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.